Sweeter than the Golden Delicious variety and more resilient in storage, Opal apples are taking the U.S. by storm. Production is set to double annually in Washington State, accelerated planting is underway in Europe and orchards now boast the fruit in Chile, New Zealand and South Africa. Originating from the Czech Institute of Experimental Botany's (IEB) apple breeding for disease resistance station in Střížovice, entire crops of this gem are sold before they've even been grown. For patent owner Varieties International, the biggest concern is whether there will be enough volume to meet demand.
When Varieties International co-owner Dave Weil bought the rights to Opal in 2005, it was just one of four cultivars he found interesting in a broad portfolio of apples bred by the IEB's Dr. Jaroslav Tupy.
"He [Tupy] had a couple of successful releases but nothing huge. His biggest release was Topaz, which was popular in Europe but it's a very tart fruit and we were never successful with that one," he says.
"Then he had very good instincts about how to hybridize so he crossed Topaz with Golden Delicious, and he made Opal."
Weil bought rights to the four apples and couldn't tell at the time which would be successful, but testing would later show Opal has a sweetness of 15-18 brix - a cut above the average 12 brix of Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples - whilst maintaining the acidity that brings out tartness and complex flavors.
The apple was grafted and put through a fast-track testing system with the Washington State University (WSU) but on a very low budget, with a lack of thinning so that the fruit looked like "little golf balls". Weil harvested the apples, put them in a garbage bag and decided to go back home to Oregon.
"But on the way home I decided I was going to do a fishing trip. I closed the car up for four days - it was 100°F - and when I came back the fruit wasn't soft.
"I thought 'oh boy, this is going to be apple sauce', and it was unbelievable. I'd never seen something like that before."
That was Weil's lightbulb moment.
Raising the golden category
He explains how the golden apple market is currently underserved, with the mainstay Golden Delicious not tending to stay in good condition too long after it actually becomes yellow.
"They are picked either green or what they call breaking, which is a translucent color but not yellow. If you have that yellow golden you have about five days before it becomes soft and mushy," he says.
In contrast, he describes the Opal as "almost in animated suspension" once it's been picked which makes it ideal for storage and shipping. He is not sure why, but has a theory it may have to do with low ethylene production.
"You can harvest this apple very close to its peak maturity, which is what you'd like to do with golden but you can't distribute it. With this apple you can, and it doesn’t bruise, it stores, it reacts to MCL (methylcyclopropene) very well, so it can probably be stored all year."
The other drawcard is the bright yellow color, which Weil says stands out in the produce aisle. He claims it could be treated as a separate category for its true yellow-gold color, as tests show consumers don't confuse it with Golden Delicious.
"When you talk about cosmetics, the negative is the russet, but the positive is its bright golden color and that's what gets the consumer eye," he says.
"The other thing they found is that if you can associate good flavor with something that’s identifiable in the apple, you can get repeat sales.
"So if you have a red apple that looks like all the other red apples, the consumer will eat it but he'll forget which variety it was. But with Opal they never forget."
He adds that buyers from U.S. grocery outlets are viewing russets as characteristic of the variety, and this hasn't been a problem for shoppers.
"The trends have changed in the market. People don’t look at the cosmetics as much as the flavor."
To see how big a fish Opal really was, Varieties International had the first test row planted with orchardist Ralph Broetje from First Fruits in Prescott, Washington.
"It was 10 times better than we imagined. It was instant. There was a wow factor when you ate it," Weil says.
"We had to go to commercial trials which is the second phase where you harvest the fruit and sell it to get a consumer reaction - we had enough fruit to put it through a chain store in Seattle called IGA.
"They were pretty excited and they basically asked to buy every Opal known to man for the next 10 years."
As sales grew, so too did the orchards and the amount of supermarkets and stores on board.
"First Fruits are managing all the Opal sales in the U.S. They're currently at around 100,000 euro boxes, and they’re allocating out the sales with all 15 of the top grocery retailers.
"They don’t have enough fruit to cover the market so they’re selecting chains in regions and they’ll give them a kind of exclusive.
"It’s an unusual thing in the fruit business to sell the entire crop before you grow it. It’s kind of a first for me, and that’s the excitement it’s generated for the U.S."
He estimates the Washington Opal crop will double each year in the near future.
"For example, this year we planted approximately 300,000 trees which yield about one bushel box, or roughly 1.5-2 euro boxes per tree - that would yield something like 400,000 euro boxes just in this year’s planting, which will be available in two years."
Planting further afield and counterseasonal supply
Weil says the biggest concern is whether there will be enough supply for grocery stores to have Opal on their shelves as long as possible.
"The initial goal is to get Opal planted so that as many stores as possible have year-round continuous supply, and in order to do that it will be under the trademark Opal, with a consistent brand standard and quality control standards.
"The price for Opal is driven by consumer demand, and that flows down through the distribution channels to the benefit of the growers, and that’s our focus."
Southern Hemisphere supply will be a key part of reaching that goal with three orchards now producing in Chile in San Fernando, Curicó and Angol, along with others that will come into production next year close to Rancagua. The Global Licensing Association (GLA) is administering the variety in the South American country.
"The apples in Chile have a couple of destinations. We’ve worked to develop a domestic market, which takes some of the risk off growers.
"The second part is it will be sold in the traditional markets of Chile in North America and Europe, but we also expect that because the quality of the fruit is so extraordinary in Chile, it may have the unique opportunity to start opening up marktets like Asia or elsewhere in South America."
He adds the Opals in Chile tend to be 1-2% sweeter while maintaining a good balance of acidity.
Reaching emerging markets is a particular target of those involved with Opal, given its advantages in locations lacking in postharvest infrastructure.
"If you don’t have a good cold chain, which is often the case in say China, that’s exactly what you want. We’re looking at Mexico from the U.S. These are going to ship very well and arrive very well."
He adds there are also small trial sites in New Zealand and South Africa with plans to license commercial partners, but these agreements are not yet complete.
Varieties International is working in parallel with Webfruit's Michael Weber in Germany, who in turn is also working on the variety with Empire World Trade. Spain's San Luca is also in the mix as a distributor on the European continent.
Weil says around 100,000 trees are being planted across Europe in countries including England, Spain, Austria and France, as well as small amounts in Italy.
He expects the variety will be planted in Poland soon, and of course the apples are grown in the Czech Republic, where Tupy is humble about his achievements.
"Breeding is made by nature," he says.